Cellular immunotherapy uses a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer. Sometimes that means doctors will stimulate and create more immune cells in the body. It also can involve genetically engineering immune cells so that their cancer-fighting properties are targeted at specific types of cancer.

How Cellular Immunotherapy Works

Lymphocytes, which are cells within the body’s immune system, can attack and kill cancer cells. They are grouped into three broad categories: T cells, B cells, and natural killer (NK) cells. CGCI researchers are actively investigating ways to exploit the ability of these cells to target specific types of cancer.


T-cells can be re-engineered to attack cancer cells. In this process, T-cells are harvested from a patient’s blood. A special receptor, called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR), is added in the laboratory, which then binds to a specific protein on the patient’s cancer cells. These new CAR T-cells are grown in the laboratory until there is a large quantity of the engineered cells. The new cells are infused back into the patient. CAR T-cell therapies are among the first immunotherapies approved by the FDA. At Washington University, CGCI researchers were among the first to offer clinical trials that led to FDA approval of CAR T-cell therapy.  On the horizon is research focused on using donor T-cells versus T-cells from a patient, which could enhance the speed at which the cells can be engineered to target specific cancers.

Want to know more? Watch our video about CAR-T cellular immunotherapy for the treatment of certain blood cancers.

B Cells

Researchers have found that B-cells can enhance the cancer-killing properties of T-cells and help guide CAR T-cells direct to tumor cells.

NK Cells

Also called Natural Killer cells, these cells are being studied as a way to potentially treat solid tumors, including lymphoma, colorectal cancer, and breast cancer. Much like T-cells, NK cells attack cancer, but they do so by secreting proteins that help direct white blood cells to a cancerous tumor or infection.